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Creativity, Activity, and Longevity

The power of creativity in life is monumental. Artists and innovators know this from experience. Yet, creativity is by no means limited to artists. It is something that all of us can draw upon to refresh, invigorate, heal and connect. There is a multitude of ways to be creative in our lives. It may involve paint or canvas, story telling, choosing our clothes, gift giving during the holidays, or even the way we arrange our home. Creativity and its many forms are boundless.

One population that can benefit enormously through creative activity is the elderly. At a point in life when circumstances cause complex emotions and challenges, adjustments to daily living, or more leisure time, creative art forms may offer a hobby, passion, and a valid tool for dealing with life issues. Creative expression can be an outlet, a release, and a vehicle of expression. For seniors, using art to communicate and to process the complex events in their life opens a new window to the world.

Artistic endeavors help seniors stay engaged in life, bringing happy memories alive, bridging the past with the present, and offering choice and control. Writing life stories, making memory books and organizing photo albums can connect those in someone’s life today with those from their past, helping to keep alive a part of themselves. Identity-loss or change may be experienced due to a loss of a spouse, family members, retirement, or a move, which may lead to depression. Creative activity has been shown to reduce depression and isolation offering the power of choice and decisions, two aspects that seniors may feel they are losing. Simple choices such as whether to have a plant in one’s room, the arrangement of furniture, picking the time and night of the movie, and which vegetable to eat had a profound impact on the health and well-being of the elderly in a nursing home. The study was cut short because the mortality rate and health decline for those not offered the choices was drastically higher. Choice and creativity go hand in hand with optimizing health and longevity.

Creative activities also offer a new means of communicating and accessibility. People with physical or mental challenges due to stroke, heart attack, dementia or other factors have reported improved mood and self-esteem through art. We have found those with Alzheimer’s or dementia open up and communicate well through collage work. Sometimes, we may all forget how many creative activities and choices we make in our daily lives. It can be easy to reintroduce old ones as well as find new ones.

Let us share with you a little bit about Larry, a man who was both our teacher and client. He had lived a very fruitful life in all aspects, being an upstanding member of the community, managing a successful corporation, providing for his family and giving back through charity. One day after retirement, he was out boating and suffered a heart attack. He was never the same as a result of the lack of oxygen to his brain and was living in a nursing home. In his mind, he would go back into the past. Sometimes, he traveled back to what must have been happier times in his life even becoming a child or a teenager again. His communication was impaired and his verbal skills were poor. As excellent a job that the nursing home did to attend to his physical needs, they could not give him the needed one-on-one mental stimulation. The days could be a monotony of functional routine: eat, groom, and sleep. The television was often on all day. He did not have a remote. He could not get out of bed on his own. He had very little choice left in his daily life. While the nursing home staff did what they could, they were busy with the multitudes of responsibilities they had and were not always able to give him the attention he needed. Thanks to the good care he was receiving, we had the opportunity to attend to some of his other vital needs.

Weekly, we would visit this man painting pictures, making cards for family, holiday decorating, rearranging his room, listening to his favorite music, and offering him choices on activities. We knew that he had been a lover of the arts becoming a sought after patron. Now, the cause was giving back to him in new ways. At times while painting, we saw a clearer, more lucid man come forth. We saw hints of who he was before the heart attack. As we painted or listened to the music he loved, we would have conversations. Sometimes, it was just about the art, what color to use next, what it represented…a mood or an emotion. The art gave him back some power of choice, a vehicle of expression and communication. Stories and memories of the past would surface. Although we did not know Larry from before the heart attack, we came to know the people and events that had survived in his mind and the things that were still important to him. Certain stories were especially clear in his mind. He would repeat them. There was something in this act of story-telling that was necessary and healing.

Towards the end of life, art offers a way of processing things we have done in our lifetime – accomplishments, losses, loves. The idea that our lives flash before our eyes before we die may be rooted in this journey of processing, each in our own way. Our personal identity is something that continues to be revamped and examined throughout life. For many, art and creative expression have a way of opening up the doors to people’s emotional interiors. It can also be an individual’s own creation, interpretation, or action. The artist chooses, decides and creates. The medium also has some control, and thus, the medium one chooses should be appropriate for that person. Some may find the challenge of a difficult medium and the reward of mastery. Others may find frustration in the challenge of an inappropriate medium. The art form is highly personal. While one may be drawn to watercolor, another may find music, writing, gardening or dance. These forms can all provide outlet, joy and stimulation.

Both the act of creative expression and social interaction are vital to the mental and physical well being of people like our elderly friend. Without these two key aspects in life, the days may become monotonous and depression may result. These things can be overlooked in the scramble of doctor appointments and daily needs of the elderly. Research supports the idea that social and creative deprivation can actually impair brain function. One of the leading proponents of this theory is Gene D. Cohen, MD, PhD. director and professor of health-care sciences and professor of psychiatry at the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities, George Washington University, Washington, DC and the author of The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life (Harper Collins). Dr. Cohen is the lead researcher of a twenty-five year study on creativity and aging in more than 200 senior citizens. Regarding the relationship of creativity and health, Dr. Cohen says, “Expressing ourselves creatively can actually improve health, both mentally and physically. Creativity is a natural, vibrant force throughout our lives-a catalyst for growth, excitement and forging a meaningful legacy.” Dr. Cohen also makes some other key points regarding the importance of creativity to wellness:

  • Creativity reinforces essential connections between brain cells, including those responsible for memory.
  • Creativity strengthens morale. It alters the way we respond to problems and sometimes allows us to transcend them. Keeping a fresh perspective makes us emotionally resilient.
  • Challenging the brain can relieve sleep and mood disorders.
  • Reading, writing and word games increase one’s working vocabulary and help to fend off forgetfulness.
  • Capitalizing on creativity promotes a positive outlook and sense of well-being. That boosts the immune system, which fights disease.
  • Having an active, creative life makes it easier to face adversity-including the loss of a spouse.

(Cohen, Gene D., “Welcome to the Creative Age”, Bottom Line/Tomorrow Vol.9, #8 (Aug.2001)

The philosophy and research behind Neurobics, a unique brand of brain exercises, is also supportive of the idea that an active and creative mind is a healthy mind. Although it is common knowledge that physical inactivity can cause the body to deteriorate, the concept of brain exercises is a more recent development. One of the creators of the Neurobics concept is Dr. Lawrence C. Katz, Ph.D. of the Department of Neurobiology in the Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC and an Investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Dr. Katz developed the Neurobics regimen in conjunction with partner, Manning Rubin. Together, they wrote the book, “Keep Your Brain Alive” in order to help people concerned with the mental decline that often accompanies aging. Neurobic exercises involve using the physical and emotional senses in unexpected ways and encouraging people to avoid monotony in their everyday routines. (www.neurobics.com, March 2002) Dr. Katz suggests in his book that the mental exercises can enrich the existing connections between brain cells and even forge new ones. He states, ” People tend to use the same senses in modern life over and over again, so that they end up losing lots of visual and auditory associations. By bringing the other, under-used senses into play you actually increase the repertoire of brain pathways that are activated. (AgeVenture News Service, www.demko.com) Dr. Katz also points out that social deprivation can impair brain function and some of his Neurobic exercises are geared towards avoiding social deprivation.

One recent study, paid for by the National Institute on Aging and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, may also lend credibility to theory that an active mind is a healthier mind. The study, conducted on elderly Roman Catholic nuns, priests and brothers in the United States tracked the 801 participants for an average of 4.5 years. The study began with an initial cognitive evaluation, surveyed the time spent in various cognitive activities such as crossword puzzles, radio, reading, etc, then correlated this information to participants who developed Alzheimers. The risk of Alzheimers was higher for the general population when compared to the nuns. For more information on the nun study, visit www.nunstudy.org. Again, this study reminds us of the importance of keeping mentally active during ones lifetime in order to ensure mental and physical wellness in later life.

When addressing the longevity of our elders, we must look at more than the immediate needs of food, shelter, finance and physical health. We have seen that there is much more to a truly healthy, rounded and fulfilling life than this. Let us honor the emotional and spiritual well-being of our selves and our elders and not forget the importance of creativity, activity, and sharing some time together. These things can be so meaningful to a person, especially towards the end of their life. If we remember this, we will be much more likely to have a happy ending to our story, a sunset on the canvas.